Limit Feeding In A Drought

It's not always necessary to cut herd numbers when forages are stressed.

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Limit-feeding restricts forage needs to somewhere around 25% of normal amounts during a drought. This management practice can help producers maintain core genetics in their cow herd rather than having to sell cattle to prevent overgrazing, Image by Chris Clayton

With drought conditions firmly entrenched in ‌much of the Southern Plains this year, many ‌of the region’s cow/calf producers are turning ‌to limit-feeding to keep the herd in place. It’s also a good way to be sure feed costs stay in check during stressful periods.

David Lalman, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension beef cattle specialist, says limit-feeding offers an alternative to herd reduction but adds the best-management practice during a drought is always going to be to avoid overgrazing by limiting the number of animals.

Regardless of the approach, making it through a drought can be expensive. Limit-feeding is also going to require more labor, possibly more equipment and good feed management. Not easy, but it can get that herd a producer has worked hard to develop through a tough spot.

CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES. Limit-feeding is a management practice that sets forage use at somewhere around 25% of normal amounts, according to OSU research. This can help a producer maintain core genetics in the cow herd rather than selling off cattle to prevent overgrazing. The feeding strategy works well when the price of concentrate feed is inexpensive, which luckily is the case now, Lalman explains.

“Forage and hay are limited in the Southern Plains,” he adds. “It’s hard to find, and it’s expensive right now.”

Lalman believes there are some real advantages to feeding cow/calf herds a concentrate-feed diet in a dry-lot environment. He says because this allows for flexibility, it takes the pressure off of pastures, meaning recovery will be quicker when moisture returns. Limit-feeding increases digestibility anywhere from 4 to 8%, and reduced activity in dry lots (10 to 20% less) means cattle don’t walk long distances for water.

Increased management is probably one of the biggest considerations, and, for some producers, this will make the system impractical, Lalman says. Limit-feeding means it’s important to know how much a cow is eating each day. A 1,150-pound mature cow will need about 12 pounds of feed per day, roughly 1% of its body weight. A lactating cow will need closer to 20 pounds a day, or about 1.7% of its body weight. Crude protein levels for a lactating cow in a grazing situation are normally around 11 to 12%; but in the limit-feeding system, it is higher, at an estimated 17.5%. Roughage and concentrates can be fed together or separately. In limit-feeding, the goal is to limit the amount of forage fed, so free-choice feeding of roughage will not work.

Timing matters, too. “We feed every morning at the same time, although you can split it in half and feed in the morning and afternoon,” Lalman says of the program. “You have to feed at the same time every day, otherwise you are asking for problems.”

OSU researchers looking at the program fed a dry ration of concentrate feeds to cattle. The ration had about 8 to 12% moisture, and researchers noticed cattle would pick through the feed and eat the moist feed first. To solve this problem, they added liquid molasses at 7.5% moisture to the dry ration. They also added some water to the ration to make it moister. Since every herd is unique, Lalman recommends livestock producers interested in using a limit-feeding program consult with a nutritionist to establish a ration that provides their cattle with what they need to thrive.

NUTS AND BOLTS. Other considerations with limit-feeding are the additional facilities and the equipment that will be needed. Lalman notes pens will be required, as well as a storage facility for feed. More feeding equipment, including feed wagons, tractors, loaders and bunks, will also be key.

Possibly because of this increased need for facilities and equipment, Lalman says Southern Plains cattle producers have been slow to make the shift to limit-feeding.

For those with the facilities to implement the program, Lalman notes cows need 30 to 36 inches of bunk space each. And, he says plan for more if calves are not being fed in a creep area. OSU researchers fed calves the same diet, and free-choice, creep-fed calves gained approximately 3 pounds a day.

“You have to watch the calves in this system, as they can become fleshy after 90 days on the creep feed,” Lalman says. He adds in their system, calves are typically weaned at 120 to 150 days.


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